A Brief History of How I Became the Whistlesmith

Why does one website have such a different mix of products?

I will try to explain how evolution happens to your product line without you planning it at all…

When I was only six , my mother passed away and I was left to live with my Grandfather and Grandmother in Lake City, Florida. Granddaddy was a sign painter and a specialist in doing gold leaf lettering on windows, so he took me to the shop everyday and instead of drawing pictures to entertain myself, I learned to letter signs. Before I could read, I was filling in the centers of letters with paint and practicing making the letter B with a lettering brush.

My Grandmother was a registered nurse and would take me along to keep her company when she delivered a baby or had to tend to a sick neighbor. She made me memorize a poem every week and taught me to read and write and stand up in front of a group of people and recite passages from the books we read together.

One day I was told that Grandmother was ill and I would be going to live up North with my great uncle and aunt. So I left Florida and ended up in Presque Isle, Maine where everything was very different. I went to school in Maine in the winter, but every summer I stayed with Granddaddy to work in the sign shop as his apprentice. My two uncles were both illustrators and one taught me portrait painting and the other worked for Ringling Brothers circus and taught me how to letter circus wagons and do silk screen posters.

By the time I was thirteen I had a sign business in Maine in the winter and a full time job in Florida in the summer painting billboards. After I graduated from high school in 1962, I enlisted in the Navy for four years and closed my sign business until I returned in the winter of 1967.

While I was in the Navy, I went to Drafting & Illustrators School in California and graduated with honors. I served in Norfolk at Atlantic Intelligence Center for two years and while there I did a variety of off hour jobs in both drafting and illustration. I painted a large number of portraits of the officers at the station including NATO officers stationed there from all over the world. When I left Norfolk,Virginia, I was stationed on the U.S.S. Prairie AD15 in the Pacific. While on board, I did all phases of drafting and combat illustrations for the ship and its attached groups of destroyers. After hours, I produced over 300 velvet oil paintings and portraits of people and places we visited during three cruises through WESTPAC. More importantly, I learned how to run a complete machine shop, including lathes, milling machines and various skills such as pattern making and layouts from the men the R1 repair division.

When my enlistment ended, I went back to Maine and reopened my sign business. I got married to my wife Nadiene and we settled in to raise two sons Rod III and Jay C. The sign business was a good business and I added more silk screening to the mix of jobs and began to decals and realty signs for other sign shops in the area.

In 1975, the Beautify America law went into effect and signs along the highway were no longer allowed. So I built all my own equipment to silkscreen tee shirts and sweatshirts and began to promote hand drawn original artwork to sell to tourists and advertising logos and designs for advertising. In a few months, my brother Allan got out of the Air Force and I sold a contract to screen print for a major clothing distributor. Everything fell into place and the business grew until we had twenty people working, silk screening and shipping goods all over New England. Keeping up to the demand for artwork alone, kept three people busy and finally we computerized in about 1985 and began typesetting and doing artwork digitally. All the original drawings were scanned and archived into a catalog for future use. After almost twenty years of doing tourist based designs, my wife and I decided we would do only custom artwork and screening . The business became more like an advertising agency with the addition of specialty goods and closer customer service.

Over the years, I had accumulated a complete woodworking shop for manufacturing the equipment and frames needed in the silkscreen business. I looked at several options to use the tools on hand (including a 2000 sq. ft. shop) and decided to make high grade wooden urns that would be both decorative and useful. I designed a complete line of urns and started Artistic Urns as a part time enterprise. In four years, Artistic Urns went from an idea to an international business and became a solid and predictable part of production.

In the manufacture of the urns, I had many feet of wood cut-offs that began to mount up in my shop. I had experimented with fishing lures when my boys were home and there were several bass fishing plugs that had caught a lot of fish. One of these was Fat, Fat the Water Rat, a surface lure with twin propellers that had been exceptional at getting big smallmouth to hit. I decided to take all the extra wood and turn it into fishing lures in a numbered series that would appeal to fishing plug collectors. Fat, Fat the Water Rat was immediately successful and I have been making and selling limited edition collector lures every since.

The first whistles I remember were the ones that Victor Bear taught me to make from the limb of the poplar trees. Victor and his family were from the Tobic Reserve in New Brunswick, Canada and would come to Maine to pick potatoes in the fall of the year. In the spring, his father and older bother would cut white ash to make baskets and would be in our area for a few weeks. Victor came by on one of these visits and while we were playing, he showed me how to make a whistle by cutting a piece of poplar and beating it to remove the bark. After you whittled the inside to a proper shape, the bark was replaced and you had a whistle that played one or two notes. Over the years I taught hundreds of kids to make those whistles and many of them have remarked on how they taught their children and grandchildren to make a poplar whistle.

In school you learned to play the Tonette ( still made today) which was a plastic molded whistle similar to a recorder in the way it fingered. I inherited a very used ocarina in B flat and learned to play a few dozen tunes on it. Because it was clay the paint flaked off regularly and repaints to a new color were a weekly event. At least it was in a key and playable without squawks …I remember it being one octave only. It probably harbored germs of unknown quantities inside and always smelled musty even after a bath in soap and water. I had pretty much forgotten both of these instruments until my grand daughter Marilyn got interested in the tin whistles my brother had brought back from his trip to Ireland as a souvenir.

My brother Alan travels all over Europe and on his trips to Ireland, I would always say Bring me back a whistle and he always did. My collection grew and when my son Jay went to Ireland, he brought me back a whistle and it became a standard request to my friends and neighbors when they went on vacation. I had played the whistle a few times for Marilyn and she decide it would be a good addition to playing the clarinet. After a few days, she could hammer out several tunes and had decided she would like a more flute-like sounding whistle or at least one that did not SOUND LIKE A DUCK when you blew it too hard. I told her that we could design a whistle in the shop and make it to suit her requirements. Well… I should have sat down and taken a nap instead.

After two full years of prototypes and trial and error, I have arrived at the models on these pages. The variety of designs are really just a start to an adventure in invention that could last several lifetimes. Check in occasionally and see what happens along the way and be sure to mention Whistlesmith.com to your friends.